Editor’s note: This is an edited version of the original story.
Sleep. We know what happens when we don’t get enough. We might plow through the day a little tired, cranky and maybe not at our intellectual best. But sleep does more than influence whether we have a good day. Its restorative nature is essential for a healthy mind and body.
Neuroscientist Marie Hayes has studied sleep neurophysiology and behavior, including movement and arousal, in the youngest of humans for more than 27 years. Hayes focuses on the consequences of prenatal exposure to alcohol, opiates and other drugs on the developing brain.
Infants of mothers with alcohol and opiate addiction show complicated sleep disorders that her laboratory has demonstrated to be associated with withdrawal syndrome, cognitive deficits and severe sleep deprivation. Her work is contributing to our understanding of just how important sleep is in the third trimester of gestation and the first few years of life, when the brain undergoes some of its most dramatic neuroplasticity development, organizing critical neural networks.
The research sheds light on the implications of sleep deprivation in some of our highest-risk babies, many born to socio-economically challenged families.
“Poverty and associated survival stress is the context in which addiction and poor maternal health emerge,” says Hayes, a University of Maine psychology professor and an allied senior research scientist with the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health (MIHGH) in Bangor and Brewer, Maine. “For the fetus, prenatal exposure to substances of abuse creates probabilistic risk for brain development dependent on genetic susceptibility, dose and timing.”
The developing brain is vulnerable to cumulative effects of poor sleep, which manifests as sleep deprivation, a serious health condition that affects all physiological systems, says Hayes. Newborns typically require at least 16 hours of sleep daily, usually in a series of three- or four-hour periods the first few weeks, but continue to need 12 or more hours per day throughout and beyond the first year. Significant brain and body growth occurs during sleep.
Hayes and an interdisciplinary team have combined technological invention with human health research to break new ground in assessing infant sleep and the effects on neurodevelopment when sleep regulation is impaired. Her current research, the Maine Infant Follow-Up Project, is funded by a $337,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health and involves collaborators from Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC) and Acadia Hospital, both in Bangor, Maine, MIHGH and UMaine.
“We’ve been pursuing the cause of SIDS for many years and we’re not getting many clues,” says Hayes, who worked closely with Dr. Paul Tisher, former chief medical officer and director of the Narcotic Treatment Program at Acadia. “We haven’t made any progress since the ‘Back to Sleep’ campaign to encourage sleeping on the back. This resulted from the finding that SIDS victims were typically found prone (facedown) in their cribs, so the urgency is there.”
Hayes’ project involves about 150 mothers and infants from Penobscot and Washington counties in Maine, which have a disproportionately high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse. Hayes, with Ph.D. students Jonathan Paul, Beth Logan and Nicole Heller, and study coordinator Deborah Morrison, examine brain waves and motor movements during sleep of high-risk and well newborns, following the infants through their first year.